Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

Do you sometimes complain that life is difficult and full of suffering? You don’t know if you are on the right path so you don’t know exactly what the meaning of life is? Don’t you know your purpose? Then, this is a special material for you, because the person who knows WHY to live can overcome any difficulty on HOW to live.

This one is also a special conversation with those of you who have already achieved a lot, who have had great professional and financial fulfillment, but you ask yourselves “so what?” You are not alone. Even people who achieve a lot of power, wealth, comfort, pleasure and admiration can feel a great emptiness when they don’t know the true purpose of life.

Life, above all, is a search for meaning. So the most valuable thing you can do for yourself is to find out what is the value of your life.

What is the meaning of your life?

In this Arata Academy Summary, you will know an answer to this profound question, from the perspective of Viktor Frankl’s work, Man’s Search for Meaning.

You can find meaning in your work, in love or in courage.

Most people try to find meaning in life by looking for a calling, a job that brings not only money, but also a meaning for everyday life. But in addition to meaning through work, you can also find meaning by truly loving, doing favors, contributing and volunteering for greater causes, and cultivating courage in difficult times.

In today’s summary, we will focus primarily on the meaning that can be found in overcoming difficulties.

It is important to clarify that we are not saying that suffering is a necessary ingredient to find meaning in life. However, it is possible to find meaning despite suffering.

In other words, let go of the false idea that you need to struggle and martirise yourself. You don’t have to struggle to find meaning in life. Suffering on its own is meaningless. What has a meaning is the way in which we respond to suffering. Therefore, a very important concept is what we mean by responding to suffering.

We cannot control the events that happen around us, but we can control how we respond to those events.

Life is unpredictable. Things we don’t want to happen… will happen. Things that we want to happen… may not happen. Reality is made of events, people and facts that may have a greater power than our capacity for control and transformation.

For example, I can be careful when driving, but that doesn’t stop an accident from happening if it is started by someone else. I can take care of my health by exercising and eating well, but that doesn’t make me immune to a highly contagious epidemic. I can save my money, but I can be robbed by a thief.

You see? On the one hand there is what is uncontrollable and on the other hand there is what is under our control.

It is not because some life situations are uncontrollable that I will use this as an excuse to be irresponsible. If you have done any training with Arata Academy you have already trained your proactivity, taking responsibility for your choices and actions.

We need proactivity to take responsibility for our choices. We need wisdom to recognize that some events are beyond our control.

Proactivity is an essential skill to optimize our behavior and choices. This proactivity brings us great advantage in situations where we are able to control part of our life.

At the same time, we also need to recognize that there are external factors that can be more powerful than our ability to act.

When we face forces that are beyond our control, everything can be taken away from us, except for one thing: our ability to choose how to RESPOND to what happens in our life.

In the specific case of Viktor Frankl, he was a prisoner in a concentration camp. He managed to survive different types of abuse. Because of this experience, he tells us what we can learn about our ability to respond to life’s challenges.

The more significant your desire for a better future is, the greater your ability to overcome difficulties.

During difficult times, life focuses on survival. When the minimum conditions of quality of life are not present, the whole focus must be used to find strategies to guarantee the minimum necessary for us to live.

But for that, it is necessary to have the will to live. It seems a little obvious to say that it is necessary to have the will to live. When this excerpt from Viktor Frankl’s book is misinterpreted, it is even offensive in the face of the injustices and abuse that took place in concentration camps.

Let’s read here some selected quotes from the original work to better understand:

“The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.

(…) any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. 

Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. 

Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. 

Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. 

The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, “I have nothing to expect from life any more.” What sort of answer can one give to that?

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. 

We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”

Thus, on the need for a will to live, this is the context of Viktor Frankl’s original message to all readers of his book Man’s Search for Meaning.

The mistake that is made by some coaches and motivational speakers is to say that the prisoners simply surrendered.

What the book teaches us is that there are sad situations in which any human being can be oppressed to the point of just wanting everything to end. This is the loss of the will to live, the loss of belief in the future.

Viktor Frankl says that depending on the work done, prisoners received coupons that could be exchanged for cigarettes. And these cigarettes were valuable, because if they were kept, they could be exchanged for a plate of soup that could be decisive for not starving.

Thus, the focus should be on saving cigarettes for those crucial moments. However, when a prisoner lost the will to live, he stopped saving cigarettes. Instead of using cigarettes as currency, he started smoking his own cigarettes. This is an act identified as the moment when that individual reached the limit, which is written like this in the book:

“(…) those who had lost the will to live and wanted to “enjoy” their last days. Thus, when we saw a comrade smoking his own cigarettes, we knew he had given up faith in his strength to carry on, and, once lost, the will to live seldom returned.”

And what does that mean for us?

This means that there is a connection between our ability to make small sacrifices today in the hope of a better future. The greater the belief that you can have a promising future, the greater your ability to resist desires for instant gratification.

So if you are procrastinating or you get easily distracted, think of this metaphor of the prisoner who no longer wants to save cigarettes for an important moment in the future.

When the prisoner began to smoke his own cigarettes, Viktor Frankl knew that his comrade had lost the strength to go on, losing the will for his own future.

In our daily life, we abandon our plans for the future when we spend the savings we shouldn’t, when we become sedentary watching television instead of exercising the body, when we eat poorly, when we don’t study, when we just want to party and don’t plan our own future.

The more significant your desire for a better future, the greater your ability to overcome. Visualizing a desirable future therefore helps to develop resistance and the will to live. At the same time, it is in the present moment that we make our choices.

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We need aspirations. It is important to envision a better future.

It is a mistake to look at a person in their current condition and believe that they are unhappy just because they are distant from their dreams.

For example, the fresh graduate who aspires to reach a leadership position is not necessarily unhappy. He just has a career path that he has yet to follow. Happiness can come just because he is on the way, enjoying the journey. Another similar example is the case of an obese person who has the aspiration to get in shape. Or an indebted person who would like financial prosperity. 

These people don’t have to wait until they have fitness or wealth to allow themselves to be happy, they can simply feel happy just because they are already doing what needs to be done, they are enjoying the journey.

We will always have a gap between our aspirations and our achievements. The distance between what a person has today and what he or she would like to have in the future is not, in itself, a cause for unhappiness. It is possible to use discipline to seek what we desire and this can be a happy path.

This is what we call the tension between what has already been achieved and what can still be achieved in the future. It is the distance between what a person is today and what they can become tomorrow. This tension is part of the life of all human beings.

This tension is called noo-dynamics, which is represented on the one hand by a meaning that must be filled in and, on the other side, the person who must fill in this meaning. In other words, it is only you who will be able to say what the meaning of your life is. You give the meaning. It is positive and healthy to see the potential to be fulfilled in the future.

What we want to avoid is the state of stagnation in which there is no desire for improvement.

Stagnation is a state in which the person does not feel like improving at all, in which they cannot visualize the future, in which they are not striving in search of something that they freely chose. This is the state of discouragement, boredom or apathy that impairs the happiness of many people today.

Some people believe that this is the good life, the calm life, in which we finally rest. However, this path represents a lack of purpose.

Beware of the feeling of existential emptiness. The lack of meaning in life. The lack of a reason to continue living. This can lead to an internal void, a distressing situation of existential vacuum.

Some people do not take their dreams seriously for fear of failure. Don’t be afraid to fail, as there is a much worse feeling: the regret for never having tried.

Faced with a sudden unwanted event, we first have a shock and difficulty in accepting what is happening.

The symptom that characterizes the first phase of an unwanted situation is shock. When an unwanted event occurs, the first feeling is disbelief. We don’t believe that situation could be happening to us.

Within psychiatry this is the condition called the “delusion of reprieve” that occurs when the condemned man, immediately before execution, goes through the illusion that he can be spared and receive pardon.

Think of any abuse you have suffered and you will remember this first moment of shock, thinking that it is so absurd that it cannot be happening. A variation on this state of shock is to have the illusory hope that things are not so bad. We perceive a distorted reality because of this strong desire to reduce the intensity of pain. Sometimes we create fantasies and stories in which we imagine a positive outcome, ignoring all evidence to the contrary.

That is why many meditative and mindfulness practices give importance to our ability to be in the present moment and observe reality as it is. Faced with each moment of dissatisfaction with life, we may have different degrees of shock and refusal to accept reality. This leads to a false perception of reality, which, in turn, makes it difficult for us to make good choices.

Suffering happens when we oppose resistance to accepting reality. This causes agony, because one of the things that defines humanity is the ability to adapt to anything.

When suffering continues, we use apathy as a defense mechanism.

In the beginning, when we are exposed to the unpleasant, the unwanted, we tend to dislike, to close our eyes, to seek a distance. In addition to trying to escape discomfort, we also try to do what we can to change the situation.

However, when it is not possible to escape exposure to pain, we need some defense mechanism, a psychological coping mechanism. This is an effort that we make to change the way we think and act so that we can deal with unpleasant situations. And one of the coping mechanisms when we cannot escape pain is apathy.

Apathy is like an emotional death, an emotional anesthesia. We stop showing emotion, we even stop feeling emotions, we are indifferent. This anesthesia helps us to deal with pain, with frustration, with abuse, with the unwanted. But it has many side effects that we don’t want.

Apathy is a type of protection that decreases our sensitivity to life. Anger, disgust, pity or disgust are feelings that begin to subside as we stop caring.

There is apathy everywhere. There is apathy in the voter who has already lost hope in all political parties and no longer cares. There is apathy in the young man who tried different ways to get an honest job and never found an opportunity. There is apathy in the employee who sees that the company where he works is fraught with fraud and low quality of services, and then he no longer cares, doing only the minimum necessary to avoid being fired. That is apathy.

Nostalgia can be a useful defense mechanism, provided it is used in moderation.

Another way to escape from the reality full of suffering is to withdraw into memory, remembering precious moments of joy before the difficult reality we now face. In this case, nostalgia and running away to the past seem to have a positive effect on mental toughness.

But there are some limits to this strategy. Those who look too far into the past find it difficult to envision the future or live in the present moment. In this way, we end up missing the opportunities to find happiness in the moment of the now and are stuck in a past that no longer exists.

In difficult situations, we have the opportunity to grow. We can see difficulties as a test of our internal strength. If we ignore this, we can close our eyes and just live in the past. In this way, life is meaningless. Instead, we can view a difficult situation as an opportunity to end a cycle and start a new one, with a different meaning.

Observe your own thoughts as a defense mechanism.

Increase your awareness to be able to observe your own thoughts. This will help to realize the triviality of our general concerns. With that awareness, we can think of things of greater value.

When you are going through difficult times, look at yourself as if you were someone else. Imagine that you are a character in a movie, and that there are cameras filming what happens in your life.

That look of a cameraman helps you to get away from your own suffering. You can visualize a larger context of what is happening, understanding more perspectives beyond your individual point of view. This technique can help you better deal with the voices of suffering comments that are in your internal monologue.

The human brain has hedonic adaptation, a powerful ability to get used to the most different conditions.

Hedonic adaptation is the tendency to get used to things. We quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness, despite the occurrence of important positive or negative events.

For example, after some period of time from winning the lottery or losing a loved one, the tendency is for you to return to a level of happiness similar to what you had before these events.

As much as you have been through difficult times, the end of that traumatic episode does not mean that everything in your future life will be pure happiness. Life will always present unwanted situations before us, in varying degrees. From small disappointments to major devastating events. Because of this, we must be prepared to deal with reality as it is.

At the end of a long phase of apathy, there is a risk that you will lose the ability to feel joy and need to relearn slowly. Psychologically, this is the process called depersonalization. Everything seems unreal, improbable, as if it were a dream.

After a long period of suffering, we need to be careful with the difficulties of readjustment and adaptation.

When you are able to overcome a great difficulty, it is necessary to be careful with a possible feeling of bitterness. It is common for the oppressed to want to become the oppressor. This can give rise to violent behavior, difficulty in relationships and not knowing how to use one’s freedom. The fact that you have been abused does not mean that you are now authorized to abuse others.

An intense bitterness can happen in the face of lack of empathy or pity for others who do not seem to know our past and the difficulties we have been through.

All of this can cause disillusionment if we had the hope that after a difficult period everything would be different and we would be happy ever after. Life is not like this. The nature of our disappointments changes, but unwanted events and pain are part of life. Imagine a man who was poor and after a few years, he has become a millionaire. In the phase of poverty, perhaps he was suffering from the fear of not being able to pay the electricity and water bill. In the wealth phase, he may be suffering from the fear that his investments will not have the expected return.

Without knowing how to deal with reality, suffering has no limits. In a comfortable life, we can suffer even more, more intensely. Because of this, in addition to improving our objective living conditions, we also need personal development. We also need to improve our internal preparation to deal with the frustrations and sorrows of everyday life. Everyone has problems. Not everyone knows how to deal with their problems.

Joy and sadness are relative because the brain adapts and gets used to different situations.

When you are in a miserable situation, some slightly bad news can be perceived as a joy.

Imagine for example that a thug assaults you and demands that you hand over your wallet. And you beg by asking him to at least let you keep your documents. If he agrees, you can feel relief and even joy.

On the other hand, when you are living a life of the highest ecstasy, only mildly good news can be disappointing and sad. Imagine, for example, a celebrity who rages because the champagne that was offered as a courtesy by the hotel is not their favorite brand. 

This is because the way the brain works is from comparisons. We create certain expectations in our heads and then compare them with reality to assess whether what we have is good or bad.

We also tend to compare ourselves mainly with people who are close to us, our social circles. If someone in another country is hugely successful, it may cause little emotion on us. However, when the person with much greater success lives in our same city, in our same neighborhood or is from our most intimate family or circle of friends, there is a greater tendency to feel envy because of the comparisons we make.

Comparison with others has several implications, affecting our levels of happiness. Furthermore, if I compare myself with others, this limits me. Instead of looking for the flow state and being happy doing what I really want, there is a tendency to just focus on the other and try to be better than the people in my social circle, which is a very limited way of living.

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What is the meaning of life? Is it just trying to survive?

Viktor Frankl answers us by telling the story that it was necessary to have volunteer doctors in another concentration camp to treat patients with a serious contagious disease.

As he was a doctor, he thought about doing this good deed as a volunteer. However, his friends said it would be a bad idea as he would probably also get sick and die quickly. At this point, he assessed the choices.

Would it be worth it to continue until the end, avoiding risky situations to live a meaningless life? Or would it be worth taking a chance and helping colleagues using their medical knowledge productively?

When you do what you believe should be done, even though it may have risks, discomfort and a price to pay, the mind achieves the tranquility and happiness of knowing that you have made a good choice. That is how we achieve inner peace.

Your mental freedom can never be taken away from you.

Our environment and conditions represent a small part of who we are. There is something that is much bigger and more powerful, which is the freedom that each of us has and that cannot be taken away by anyone. We have the spiritual freedom to choose how to react to any type of situation.

Whatever your condition and the life challenges you face today, you always have the possibility to choose your actions. You always have the possibility to maintain your spiritual freedom and your mental independence.

Pain is an inevitable part of life, just like death. The way you accept your destiny and the pain that comes with it is an opportunity to add a deeper meaning to life.

We can act with courage, dignity and generosity. Or we can enter the bitter way of fighting for self-preservation above all else, forgetting our human dignity and becoming nothing more than a mere animal that only reacts to events in order to survive.

To develop the art of survival by finding meaning even in difficult conditions is to master the art of living. It is possible to practice the art of living under any circumstances, even in the most oppressive ones. We have the ability to control our mind to overcome suffering.

You can find meaning using logotherapy, strengthening your ability to overcome difficulties.

Based on his experiences, Viktor Frankl founded a psychotherapeutic approach called Logotherapy. Logotherapy focuses on the meanings that can be reached and filled out by the patient in the future. It also seeks to end the formation of vicious cycles of thought that can lead to the development of neurosis.

The patient is faced with choices that guide the meaning of his life. By becoming aware of this meaning, he increases his ability to overcome difficulties.

The meaning is unique, specific, and can only be filled by the individual himself. That is how he will achieve the meaning of his existence.

Logotherapy also deals with existential frustrations, in which the patient cannot find the meaning of existing. Existential frustration can result in noogenic neurosis, “noogenic” meaning that they are generated by the mind. They are different from the neuroses that arise from conflicts between desires and instincts, as they come up from existential problems.

In this way, logotherapy looks at the patient as a person whose main concern is to fulfill a meaning.

The person who knows WHY to live will be able to overcome the challenges of HOW to live.

You need to develop your ability to make choices.

Each person is different, and has different dreams, different aspirations, different difficulties, different moments in life.

Because of this there is no formula for success: it is you and only you who have the ability to make your choices consciously. And take responsibility for the consequences of your actions.

When you copy what everyone else is doing, you are a victim of conformity. When you obey because others are giving you orders, you are a victim of totalitarianism. To break free, do what makes sense to you.

Every life situation will present a challenge for us, a problem to be solved. These are valuable moments for us to find out what is the meaning of life.

Instead of asking what we can expect from life, we have to ask what life expects from us. Each of us is constantly being questioned by life and only we are in the position to respond. And we will respond by being responsible for our choices. Thus, responsibility is the essence of our human existence.

Logotherapy makes the patient fully aware of his responsibility.

We have to understand what we are responsible for, for whom we are responsible. We will never leave our responsibility to someone else. Life is what it is. It is up to each of us to do what we can do.

Understand the meaning and purpose of pain.

Life brings us the most different types of situation. And many of these situations will be painful, uncomfortable and unwanted.

The way to overcome these painful situations is to find the meaning and purpose, reinterpreting the situation in order to have a coping mechanism.

First, we must do whatever possible to reverse or control the situation. And when what we can do has already been done, we can only accept the pain. Resistance to pain can further increase our suffering. Without acceptance, the fact that I’m feeling pain will be painful. I will be unhappy because of my unhappiness. This gives rise to agony, anxiety, despair and suffering. Those are feelings that we could avoid.

When pain is inevitable, the best thing for your peace of mind is to accept that pain and look for the meaning that pain adds to your life. We can find the meaning of life through the attitude we have in the face of inevitable pain.

Use your creativity to ask useful questions to find purpose in your life.

The book tells that once, an elderly doctor with a great depression opened up and said that he could not overcome the grief. He constantly suffered the loss of his beloved wife who had passed away two years ago.

I’m telling you about this case because it is an example in which the absence of meaning in life causes suffering because of the huge emptiness that takes us.

To help find the purpose, one simple question was enough: “What would happen if you had died first, and your wife had to survive without you?”

Faced with this question, the elderly answered that it would be terrible if he had left first, because his wife would be the one who would be suffering.

This way, in the face of the pain of mourning he was able to find meaning. The suffering of the beloved woman was spared. And he, who is still alive, is the one who will deal with the pain of grief. This suffering is the price he pays for surviving and saving his wife from being the lonely widow.

In this example, this perception is the moment when the pain finds meaning. Pain with meaning does not turn into suffering.

Man’s Search for Meaning is a current book because today people are busy with tasks without a purpose.

In the introduction of the book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl clarifies that his work is not intended to be another book with factual descriptions of the holocaust or concentration camps. When facts are narrated, there is an intention to use these facts to illustrate the human and psychological dimension.

Author Viktor Frankl himself acknowledged that first-person experience makes it difficult to make a methodical presentation and admits that the book is intimate and subjective. So he made an invitation saying “I shall leave it to others to distill the contents of this book into dry theories.”

In this summary that we just made, I accepted the invitation. I had no intention of distilling a theory. I just had the enthusiasm, gratitude and honor to share with you my interpretation of the practical lessons that can be used now for you to have a better life. I hope you make good use of it.

When you know your purpose, you are able to face any difficulty.

Your purpose is discovered from the understanding of your personal values. The problem is that many people are also unaware of what personal values ​​are and, therefore, feel a natural difficulty in finding purpose. To help you, I have a special surprise, a special lesson for you to understand your personal values. You can visit this link ​​which is courtesy of the Planning Your Life course.